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Democrats Are in Disarray, or Maybe Just Negotiating

Democrats Are in Disarray, or Maybe Just Negotiating

Friday, 24 September, 2021 - 05:00

Groups of congressional Democrats trekked down to the White House on Wednesday to meet with President Joe Biden in order to … well, no one is quite sure. Weeks ago, a wide range of outcomes seemed possible for the Democrats’ two-bill strategy for enacting bipartisan infrastructure legislation and a partisan care-and-climate-and-other-stuff-Democrats-like bill that is designed to pass through the reconciliation procedure which requires only a simple majority vote in the Senate. Today, as negotiations continue and threats fly and deadlines of a sort approach? A wide range of outcomes seems possible.

Congress scholar Matt Glassman nailed it this week on Twitter: “The reason legislative politics are often so hard to decipher is because it's very hard to tell the difference between true party disarray and the normal course of last-minute negotiations where most people are bluffing and someone will blink and the deal gets cut nothing to it.”

Every group in the House of Representatives, and every individual senator, wants the legislation to be a little or a lot more this and a little or a lot more that. Especially on sprawling, major bills such as these, in which every district has an interest and many members of Congress have strong preferences for at least one of the many topics involved.

It’s their job to push hard to get as close to their ideal bill(s) as possible, and it’s the job of committee chairs, the House and Senate leadership, and perhaps the White House, to broker deals — while at the same time those brokers may also have (as the jargon goes) “asks” of their own.

To negotiate successfully, the biggest weapon everyone has is the freedom to walk away and oppose the bill, so it’s rare for anyone to explicitly say that he or she will vote for whatever emerges from the bargaining rounds. Quite the opposite: There’s a strong incentive for everyone to act as if they’ll walk away if they don’t get their way. Members can take that too far, especially in negotiations within one political party; at the very least, party leaders would expect someone who is absolutely a “no” to make that clear early. But for the most part, all the players know what the game is and expect this kind of scramble.

So everything that any of the players are saying at this point, including the warnings from moderate lawmakers and progressive factions that they’re willing to derail Biden’s agenda, is apt to be part of the negotiations. That includes what they say they want and why they want it, as well as any public (or semi-public) internal vote counts by party leaders. Capitol Hill reporting these days is excellent — far, far better than it was 30 or 40 years ago — but journalists can’t report a conclusion that doesn’t yet exist.

I’ll venture just a few speculative (and contradictory) thoughts about the incentives involved right now. On the one hand, the fact that Democrats have voted for a budget resolution that precedes the reconciliation bill should make it more likely that they’ll eventually agree to something. After all, if there’s no final bill to pass, then Democrats leave themselves open to Republican attacks based on that budget resolution and its theoretical support for a $3.5 trillion bill — without actually having any accomplishments to brag about in return. And the sprawling nature of the bill means that everyone will have something to tout if it passes.

At the same time, today’s process doesn’t strike me as quite like the Affordable Care Act fight in 2009-2010. In that case, health-care reform had been the unambiguous platform that the Democratic Party had run on in the recent election, and was the decades-long top priority of the party, one that had pushed many politicians and governing professionals into politics in the first place. That alone made passage seem an imperative. There certainly are some important Democratic priorities in the two bills under consideration, and that could mean that everyone has something to care deeply about, but — and this is speculation — it just may not have that top-priority imperative.

All of which is I suppose just a roundabout way of saying, one more time, that many outcomes still appear perfectly plausible.


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